Though he’s pretty much a household name in heavy metal, Alex Skolnick is not your average, everyday shredding guitarist. He started his career at 16 years old with the Bay Area thrash metal band Testament. While he continues to be heavily involved with them, and that style of music, in reality, he defies categorization by musical genre. He is that rare breed who, in his youth, sought knowledge over fame, temporarily leaving Testament in 1998 to study music.
Skolnick launched a host of musically diverse records. The Alex Skolnick Trio’s Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation (2002) features jazz renditions of classic heavy metal songs. His Skol-Patrol (The Skol-Patrol, 1997) was a funk band exclusively dedicated to cop-show themes, both covered and original. He even performs with Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela from time to time.
Skolnick returned to Testament full-time in 2005, continuing to push the boundaries of hard rock and heavy metal with his virtuosic skill set on records like Dark Roots of Earth (Nuclear Blast, 2012) and The Formation of Damnation (Nuclear Blast, 2008). He was involved in some pretty big Testament shows this past fall, including Motörhead’s Motörboat and Slipknot’s Knotfest, as well as writing for a new Alex Skolnick Trio CD set to be released some time in 2015.
Though pegging Skolnick as a shredder from one of thrash’s genre-defining bands is entirely accurate and complementary, it is also be a massive understatement. He’s seemingly driven by an entirely different set of principles than most of his contemporaries. “For a lot of listeners there’s more than one style of music in their collection,” he says. “So as a musician, why can’t I be the same?”
That’s why much of his recent focus has been on Planetary Coalition, an acoustic guitar driven, world music album featuring musicians from all over the world. It is perhaps Skolnick’s most ambitious project yet. In an era when many musicians are seeking fame and fortune, Skolnick is challenging established norms by seeking musical diversity and artistic freedom.
Skolnick says Planetary Coalition has been brewing for a long time. “I wanted to put the focus back on the musician,” he admits, referring to the catalyst for crafting his world acoustic project. “Our western culture has elevated these big packages, reality singing competitions, to the detriment of music as an art.” He enlisted 27 musicians from five continents for Planetary Coalition, including Rodrigo y Gabriela, Kiran Ahluwalia, Adnan Joubran, and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, to name but a few. With a focus on cultural awareness from each region, Skolnick and company take the listener on a sonic journey around the world in 80 minutes.
“There are all of these exotic instruments that western listeners don’t get to hear much,” he says of the recording. “Everybody on this album can pick up an instrument and inspire. And there’s a lot of great, fast playing that guitar players will love.”
Skolnick calls his record, “an hour’s worth of listening that I’d want to experience,” noting the authenticity of Planetary Coalition. For a novice listener, he explains, it might be difficult to get a grip on world music: because there’s so much of it—it’s hard to find anything truly authentic.
“There’s some music out there that’s classified as world music, but it’s really just mega-hit dance mixes with samples of exotic instruments,” he attests. “Putting this album together was like curating.” Skolnick is equally proud of the relationships illuminated by the project’s collaborations. “It’s such a difficult time in the world, for cultural misunderstanding, so here’s an album of people from very different places, some places that are at odds, all able to make great music together.”
So, how did Skolnick capture performances when some musicians live a subway stop away, while others reside halfway around the world? “It helps that I live in New York City, which has a very big international music community,” he says. Oftentimes, artists’ touring schedules bring them to the Big Apple. “Rodrigo y Gabriela, who I’ve worked with before, were promoting a new album and were invited to do the Late Show with David Letterman, so we were able to record them here, in the studio, which was awesome. But most of the tracks were done in different places.”
Aside from a couple of traditional tunes and collaborations, all of the songs on Planetary Coalition are Skolnick’s original compositions. “It’s material that wouldn’t fit elsewhere—it certainly wouldn’t fit in Testament,” he laughs, admitting that it’s also been a great excuse for him to make a statement almost entirely on acoustic guitar. “It’s always been an important element of my playing, but I never had a chance to make a full-blown acoustic statement. So, I’m really excited about Planetary Coalition.”
Skolnick worked with the fan funding platform ArtistShare to help offset the costs of creating Planetary Coalition. It was his first experience of crowd sourcing. “ArtistShare was doing it before Kickstarter,” he explains. “And the artists tend to be more from the arts community.”
Though he says the crowd sourcing did aid the development of Planetary Coalition, he’s not sure he’d go that route again, admitting there were some aspects of it that he wasn’t too keen about. “There’s so much added work with the constant promotion and spreading the word,” he says.
Unlike Kickstarter, ArtistShare doesn’t require an artist to forfeit their project if they don’t reach their financial goal. Skolnick refers to the donations as “supplemental,” and he thinks that the crowd-sourcing movement may have plateaued. “There were a lot of theories that crowd funding was going to be the way of the future,” he says. “But I think it’s gotten too crowded—there are crowd funding projects for everything, at every level, and I think people are overwhelmed. It was a very strange time for me to do this ridiculously ambitious full-length album when you’re not really even supposed to do albums anymore.”
Another recently released product that bears Skolnick’s name, and of which he seems equally enthusiastic, is ESP’s Alex Skolnick signature model guitar. This is the first time Skolnick has ever put his name on an instrument. “For the longest time I resisted having any sort of signature guitar,” he confesses. “I was fickle and it took me a long time to get to the point where I knew what I wanted.”
In addition to that, he says ESP’s courtship wasn’t overly aggressive. “It wasn’t someone handing me a guitar and saying, ‘Here, you’re going to like this.’ Instead, it was, ‘If we hand you a guitar, what would you want us to hand you?’” he says of the guitar that’s similar to a Les Paul, but is also its own thing. “It’s got the rich tone of a great blues guitar, along with the ease and playability of more modern guitars. It really has its own personality.”
Perhaps the most significant milestone in the trajectory of Skolnick’s professional career was his decision to become an educated musician. Testament grew significantly over its first seven years, achieving considerable success by the time Skolnick had reached his early 20s. “That’s a time when many people haven’t even had their first break yet or done their first recording,” he says. “So, for me, it begged the question, ‘What now?’”
“When I wasn’t touring, I was taking every opportunity I could to go see jazz musicians play, like John Scofield,” he says. He admits it was hard for him to find the right path. “I was torn between these different routes. On the one hand, I was scared off from becoming an educated musician. I didn’t relate to the discipline and seriousness of it. Being from Berkley, California, and the hippy culture left over from the ’60s, the work ethic is not like growing up as a classic piano player. In California you pick up an instrument and have fun.”
But after he’d done a few tours and recordings, he realized that, even though he was putting in a lot of work on the technical side, it was within the realm of a specific genre. He felt limited because he was hearing some really great music that he couldn’t play. “At some point, I discovered Miles Davis, through his electric band, and that opened the door to improvisation,” he recalls. “It was driving me crazy that I could play a few Van Halen and Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne) guitar licks, but I couldn’t really step into this other stuff.”
He addressed that dilemma by enrolling at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Performance in New York City where he eventually earned a BFA in jazz performance. “I wanted the experience of attending university and studying music and doing all of the things you do at that level, like writing charts for horn ensembles, dissecting jazz standards, and analyzing sequences. But by that time, I also knew how to have fun and so I was able to sit back and enjoy the music as well.”
A name that came up quite often in the program was Bill Evans, the great piano player. “I loved listening to his music,” he admits. “It’s elegant music, but it’s also very sophisticated at the same time. It’s like a perfect blend of being musically challenging, but you can also just sit back and listen to it.” Skolnick says working on Evans’ music was revelatory because it was both fun and technically challenging. “It was like, ‘Wow, look at the chords he’s substituting here; look at how he’s moving this sequence in this composition.’ When I was younger, I didn’t latch onto those concepts and that’s what was great about getting a musical education.”
As a youngster, Skolnick took lessons from a local folk teacher before discovering that most of the 20-something, local, hot-shot guitar players were studying with a guy named Joe. “He was this mysterious figure they were all afraid of,” he chuckles. “Joe” turned out to be guitar god Joe Satriani, who has also been credited with teaching Steve Vai and Kirk Hammett (Metallica), among others. Skolnick studied with Satriani for two years and though it wasn’t “formal” schooling, he credits the education and discipline of those formative years as the foundation upon which his skills were developed. “It was an informal but serious way of learning the basics.”
Skolnick has become an outspoken advocate of music education who enjoys teaching. He serves on the board of directors for Musicians Institute in Hollywood, California, and leads master classes at institutions like the Collective in New York, New York Guitar School, and National Guitar Workshop. Occasionally, he teaches privately.
“I also do academic conferences based around heavy metal music,” he says, referencing a recent University of Dayton Metal and Cultural Impact conference where he spoke. “It specifically focused on how music can be educational, no matter what kind of music. In my case, it happened to have been heavy metal early on that led me to jazz and world music. I’m now able to work with musicians in other genres who know nothing about metal.”
As a matter of fact, some of the players Skolnick works with in New York are what he considers to be the cream of the crop in jazz and world music. “I’m humbled that they even want to play with me, but I’m glad I’m also able to jump onstage and play songs like ‘Into the Pit’ [with Testament]. To me it makes perfect sense. I see no reason why a musician can’t jump from one style of music to another. But it’s pretty rare with guitar players. I’m not sure why that is. I feel like we’re pressured to be categorized.”
“I am not content just doing one thing,” he says summarizing the philosophy that has guided his career so far.